February 25, 2008 / 8:07 AM / in 10 years

Zen Yoga founder adds Japanese twist to ancient practice

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Imagine Indian yoga, Japanese zen, Chinese tai chi and qigong, wrapped into a 20-minute warm-up to be completed before you’ve even had your first cup of coffee of the day.

It may sound like the takeaway menu of an over-ambitious Asian fusion restaurant, but Aaron Hoopes, the founder of Zen Yoga, says adapting ancient exercises and meditation practices to modern lives does not erase their deeper spiritual meaning.

“All these disciplines have been around for thousands of years,” Hoopes said in an interview in Tokyo, where he was teaching workshops and promoting his book, Zen Yoga.

“I didn’t make them up. I put them in a form people are able to access in a comprehensive and clear way.”

Accessibility is a central theme in Hoopes’ teachings. While Hoopes also works with athletes, he wants his package of stretching, moving and breathing exercises to appeal to people who would not dare to venture inside a conventional yoga studio.

Hoopes’ book, published by Kodansha in 2007, outlines a series of exercises ranging from yoga stretches to the Chinese practice of tai chi. The author, who used to live in Japan and now lives in the United States, finds the two complement each other since yoga focuses on flexibility, while tai chi opens the joints.

“If you combine this concept of movement and circulation through the joints with the lengthening and strengthening of the muscles in yoga, then you get what Zen Yoga is trying to accomplish in getting the whole body working and flowing with energy,” he said.

The Zen part of Zen Yoga is a little harder to define.

Zen is a school of Buddhism, and one of its central teachings is to improve awareness through meditation.

Aaron Hoopes, the founder of Zen Yoga, demonstrates a yoga stance during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo February 25, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon


“The concept of zen in Zen Yoga is not necessarily the Buddhist religious aspect of zen, but it’s much more the concept of being present, being in the present moment, being mindfully aware,” Hoopes said.

One way to achieve such mindful awareness is through breathing exercises.

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Hoopes is, of course, not the first person to merge yoga with other spiritual practices and even Western forms of exercise. Walk into an average yoga studio and you will find courses ranging from hot yoga to power yoga to slimming yoga.

Many of the newer variations of the ancient practice are viewed with suspicion by traditionalists, but as stressed-out urban dwellers flock to yoga studios around the world, the diversity of styles is only likely to increase.

Hoopes himself is critical of some of the more recent yoga-related inventions, saying some of the styles have little to do with yoga.

His own interest in yoga reaches back to when he began training in karate first in the United States, then in Japan, some 25 years ago. He discovered yoga as a way to heal the aches and pains caused by his fighting, and found that it helped him improve his martial arts performance. He also has training in Chinese qi gong and tai chi.

“I created Zen Yoga to organise it all under one roof, as it were,” he said.

Hoopes teaches practitioners who want to become Zen Yoga instructors themselves, and is working on various books, including a yoga book for children. He has released a DVD with his 20-minute warm-up program -- ideally to be completed before breakfast -- and will release another one next year.

His hope is that the short Zen Yoga routine will encourage people to build the practice into their daily lives, making a habit out of simple exercises such as shoulder-shrugging or wrist rotation to loosen the body and calm the mind.

“It’s a spiritual discipline. You get the body to work properly, get mind to settle down... and that creates a fertile ground that allows the individual to mature, to grow and develop,” Hoopes said.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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